Do you want to know the honest truth? Public speaking scares the you-know-what out of me!
In college, taking Speech 101 was a requirement for graduation. Because I dreaded it so much, I put it off as long as possible, until the very last semester of my senior year. And while I don’t exactly blame Speech 101 for causing me to go completely off the deep end, I do know that the intense anxiety I felt from that speech class certainly did not help.
When several years later I finally went back to finish my degree, I somehow managed to convince someone with authority that a basic communications course—one that did not require me to speak in front of the class—would be sufficient. And so I was able to graduate without ever actually giving a single speech.
What did it really matter anyway?
After all, it wasn’t like I was planning a career in public speaking.
Oh, the irony.
The fact is that this job of mine often requires a whole lot of public speaking. Not only do I appear regularly on the local news, I am frequently asked to speak for groups, and at events or conferences.
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At some point I realized that if I wanted to do this job well, I was going to have to suck it up, put on my big girl pants, and start doing something that really scared me. So, about six months ago, upon the recommendation of my dear friend Crystal, I signed up for the SCORRE Conference. For those of you who don’t know, SCORRE is a super-intense hands-on workshop for speakers. Over the course of three days, you are required to give three five minute talks which are then critiqued by a professional speaking coach. In other words, it is more or less like paying to be voluntarily tortured.
As May 5th crept ever closer, I became more and more nervous. What if I made a fool of myself? What if I tried to be serious and everyone laughed? What if I tried to be funny and no one did? What if my coach picked me apart and told me I was awful? What if I completely forgot what I was supposed to say? What if….
By the time the date finally rolled around last week, I was convinced I was making the biggest mistake of my life. And yet I had signed up. I had already paid. I had committed. There was no turning back.
The first night actually went okay, at least better than I expected. I had come well-prepared with a five minute talk that I had practiced at least thirty times, both in front of the mirror and in front of my husband and kids. I was also relieved when I got picked to go second, before I had a chance to see just how good everyone else in my talented small group really was.
The second night, I bombed.
It was brutal. Although I had practiced all afternoon, I found out just before our small group session that I had forgotten to include a required element. I made some last minute changes to the talk but had no time to rehearse. And then I was picked to go last. Last! So I sat there listening to everyone else’s amazing talks and grew more and more anxious with every passing moment.
By the time it was finally my turn, I was so nervous that I was practically hyperventilating.
My talk was mostly a blur, but I knew it was bad when the main feedback I received was, “Well……it would be really good if you took a breath once in a while. And maybe tomorrow you should try practicing in front of the mirror. Like, a lot.”
It took every ounce of willpower I could muster to make it to my room before I burst into tears. I called my husband, wailing.
I’m such a LOSER! I don’t even know why I came to this stupid conference! I am NOT a speaker! I can’t do this!
Naturally my husband–like most husbands–always knows just what to say to a wife in tears.
I don’t really know why you’re there either. Why don’t you just come home?
Then, realizing that this perhaps wasn’t quite the encouragement I was looking for, he tried a different approach.
Honey, I know you can do this. I’m sure it is really hard, but this is not the first time you’ve been nervous or doubted yourself, and you’ve always managed to overcome it. Why don’t you just go back to what works?
And you know what?
He was exactly right. As soon as he said it, I remembered what I needed to do. I remembered that all I really need to do to overcome those moments of self-doubt is start thinking about the position of my hands.
When those feelings of self-doubt start creeping in, the very first position my hands need to be is folded in prayer. It is in those quiet moments, when I am on my knees feeling completely inadequate and incapable and absolutely worthless, that I hear the quiet whisper of one simple truth. It is the whisper that says softly but sternly This. Is. Not. About. YOU.
It is the whisper that reminds me that God always chooses the people that no one would expect, the ones who are flawed and damaged and entirely not-good-enough. He chooses the underdog not so that they will be glorified, but so that he will. He chooses the weak because he is strong. It is also the whisper that reminds me always that in the end, the only audience that matters is my audience of One.
And so I fold my hands in prayer.
The next position I need to place my hands is outstretched towards others. I think so often our natural tendency when we are feeling weak or insecure is to pull inward and focus only on ourselves, on our own feelings and our own fears. We pull inward because we think doing so will protect us, when the truth is that it has the opposite effect. Pulling inward only magnifies our feelings of self doubt.
My friend Edie is always reminding me to look outward when I feel insecure. Just focus on how you can be a blessing, she says, instead of worrying so much about how you feel. Because the truth is, when we take the time to stop and look around and really pay attention to the people around us, we see that we are not alone. We start to notice that this person over here is feeling scared, and that one over there is nervous too. And when we stretch out our hands to help the people around us, all those feelings of self-doubt start to fade away.
And so I stretch out my hands towards others.
But I can’t stop there. Because after I’ve folded my hands in prayer and stretched them out towards others, it is time to make sure my hands are clenched and ready to work! After all, sometimes we just have to power through, whether we truly want to or not.
After going crazy for a while in my early 20’s, I spent a lot of time in therapy. During those years, there was one phrase I heard over and over and over again:
Fake it ’til you make it.
As much as I hated that phrase at the time, it contains a simple truth that has served me well through the years. Sometimes we just need to clench our fists, get down to business, and fake it until we make it.
And so I clench my hands and get to work.
Three simple hand positions—folded in prayer, outstretched towards others, and clenched to get to work. These are my reminders for when the going gets rough, for when I feel insecure and scared and full of self-doubt.
My last night at SCORRE I laid it all out on the table and talked about overcoming self-doubt.
And friends? It was amazing! While I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have won any speaking awards, nor was I even close to being the best speaker of the evening, I did remember to breathe! And I was PUMPED! In fact, this is a picture someone snapped a few minutes after I spoke:
So next time those feelings of inadequacy come back to rear their ugly head–and they will come back, far more often than I would like to admit–I look at this picture and know exactly what I have to do.
And I am ready.